My morning went something like this:
(Upon waking) Coffee?
Dog: whine, whimper, cough
Ok. Walk the dog first.
Dog: wiggle and wag and walk
(Now coffee) Oh, sweet nectar of the gods!
Dog: morning nap
What poem will I write about today? (sip) I don’t know. (Panicky gulp) Wow, I really don’t know.
(Another cup leads to introspection)
Am I living the days how they should be lived?
“Old age should burn and rave at close of day.”
(A moment of aha) Of course.
And that’s how “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas arrived today.
This poem is written in the form of a villanelle. Villanelles are thought to be written in imitation of Italian or Spanish songs. Basically, they are poems written in 19 lines. They have five tercets (stanzas of three lines) followed by a quatrain (stanza consisting of four lines) with two refrains alternately repeated in the stanzas and then used as the concluding lines of the last stanza. Before I get too technical, you will get the idea as soon as you read it for yourself here: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night
You will see how, in opposition to the fixed form, the poem is bursting with emotion. The powerful lines, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” call the reader to action with an urgency. The form leashes the poem well. Without it, we may miss the message. Sometimes we need to cage the beast for safe study. Through the cage, we can focus on understanding the beast's way of life. Once we have that knowledge and understanding, we can let them go. The beast in this poem, we find out in the last stanza, is the speaker’s feelings about losing his father.
"And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
We, along with the speaker, are watching through the bars of this form and gaining beneficial wisdom on how to live. We are all things: aging, wise, good, wild, and broken, and we should “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” We should live life fully. We should resist death. “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
Dylan Thomas wrote this poem about his father’s approaching death only to die himself two years after this poem was written in 1953. He was only 39 years old. Thomas gained celebrity from his writing at the age of twenty and, therefore, partied like just like a twenty-year-old celebrity of current day would. The cause of his death is assumed to be related to his alcohol abuse.
Many of my own twenty-year-old students are quick to embrace this poem because they are primed to “rage, rage,” especially on a Friday night themselves. I tell them to use it for their weekend plans (safely) but also for every day.
Don’t “learn, too late,” to live life.
It’s a lesson for all of us at any age.
I also tell my students that my hope for them, by the end of the semester, is to have at least one poem that they carry out with them. A poem that stays with them and grows with them or means something even more to them as they experience it again in years to come. This is that poem for me.
Introduced to me in my early twenties as well, I used it just as a twenty-year-old will. Then it became a reminder to “rage” as my life gained more responsibilities.
And then, recently and unfortunately, I was able to see just as Thomas had.
I understood the why in which the poet was compelled to write it. I understood why Thomas wanted his father to fight against death.
I was in the room when my sister took her last breath. I, too, raged just as she had for the years, months, weeks, days, and moments before her death. She fought hard against her sickness. She fought hard to remain amongst the living. I was not dignified in her final hours. It was not romantic or pretty. I was not willing to part with her. I was not willing to let her go “gentle into that good night.” I know that it is what people do. I heard them say it even then “Go. It’s ok. Go be free of this pain.” I, however, was too selfish I guess. I screamed, “No, no, no,” and pounded my fists. Just a little more fight, I prayed with my “fierce tears.” I wanted her to rage more. I wanted her to stay. I didn’t get my way. I needed to be caged.
And now the poem takes on yet another shape for me today. I must live my life, not in vain. I must try to live every day as the gift it is meant to be. Not everyone has this luxury. And so rather than start my mornings off with laundry or cleaning or tackling my long to-do list-- I drink my coffee, walk my dog (who once was my sister’s puppy) and go and write. I try to live the poetry that is life.
I try to live in my sister's light.